Sunday, December 28, 2008

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo in Akira Kurosawa's High And Low (1963).

Akira Kurosawa's High and Low is a great kidnap thriller starring Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, a shoe manufacturer who is staking everything he owns on a deal to take over the company he works for when a kidnapper calls and demands a huge sum of money for Gondo's son. The thing is though, it isn't Gondo's son that is kidnapped but Gondo's driver's son.

High and Low in some ways reminded me of The Bad Sleep Well in that it deals with the corruption among company leaders, or rather, the ruthlessness of company leaders. It's not as central as in The Bad.. but it's there. High and Low's main focus is on the differences between rich and poor, those who live at the top of society and those who live at the bottom.

Gondo lives in a house up on the hills above the city. His house is big and airy with big windows and open spaces and it is visible to everyone who lives in the hot, crowded city down below, where the kidnapper is calling from. One day, Gondo is approached by the other directors of the shoe manufacturing company to take over the company together with them and start mass producing cheap shoes that won't last, but he refuses. Not only because of the reason he gives the directors, that he wants to keep making quality shoes, but also because he has his own long going plans to take it over all by himself. All he has left to do is to send his assistant over with a check for 50 million yen and the company is his. But then the kidnapper calls.

The kidnapper demands 30 million yen as ransom for Gondo's son, Jun. Gondo immediately agrees to pay the sum even though it will ruin him. Soon after, Jun comes into the room and everyone is relieved but it soon dawns on them that Jun's friend Shinichi, who he was just playing with, is missing. Shinichi is the son of Gondo's driver, and soon the kidnapper calls again having realised his mistake but he still demands that Gondo pays the ransom. This time, Gondo refuses and calls the police instead. Who would want to ruin himself and his family for someone else's child? That is what Gondo has to wrestle with while the police, headed by Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) is trying to catch the kidnapper. Gondo's wife and Aoki, the driver, is begging him to pay, but he refuses, saying that since his wife was born wealthy, she doesn't know to appreciate what they would have to sacrifice.

When the police are unable to catch the kidnapper within the time limit he has given, Gondo agrees to pay and the child is released. This makes Gondo a national hero, but the creditors who he owes money doesn't care, Gondo is ruined. While all of Gondo's possesions are being repo'd, the chase for the kidnapper goes on.

Tatsuya Nakadai in pursuit of the kidnapper, Tsutomu Yamazaki.

After it has turned out that the kidnapper is a medical student who lives in a tiny apartment below Gondo's house, and that his motive seemingly is simple jealosy it brings the film down a little at the very end. Even if the reason is to show that hard work pays off and that some things are worth sacrificing for, as in the case of Gondo working himself to the top and paying off the ransom, and that chosing the easy way of crime will always leave you at the bottom, it feels a bit too simple. But up until that point, which is at the very end of the film, High and Low is a phenomal thriller. With the first half being Gondo's personal struggle with his morals and conscience and the second being the cops chasing the kidnapper, the tension is high through the entire film and never lets up.

I'm not sure, though, what Kurosawa really wanted to say. The character of Takeuchi is a medical student, who should be able to become something, or is he envisioning the rest of his life as taking place in the tiny apartment below Gondo's house. Gondo is also someone who has worked his way to the top, so why hate him? Or is it just because he built a house that everyone could see, is he rubbing his hard earned wealth in people's faces and deserves to be robbed of what he has? When Takeuchi is arrested and confronted with Gondo, it turns out that after his arrest, he tried to commit suicide, not wanting to take responsibilty for his actions. He is entirely weak and probably insane, yet Gondo's face is superimposed on Takeuchi's. Are they the same or is it as a contrast? At the same time as the ending feels like the weakest part of the film, it also gives the most to think about.

Blues Harp (Takashi Miike, 1998)

Seiichi Tanabe in Takashi Miike's Blues Harp (1998).

Maybe watching films while being completely worn out from work and falling asleep every five minutes isn't ideal. Especially when it comes to films where plot is second to characters and atmosphere and you can't just jump right into it.

Watching Takashi Miike's Blues Harp like this just made it feel like nothing really happened in it. Maybe it's just a bad film, even though it is one of his most praised "kind of rare but still not too hard to get a hold of" films. It seems like typical Miike. A few people getting involved by chance with eachother and trying to build lives together, but due to their involvment in crime, no matter if they are full blown yakuza or only living on the sidelines, everything always comes crashing down.

Chuji works in a bar and sells drugs for a yakuza group. He also becomes the member of a band which is being scouted by an agent at the bar, getting close to a record deal. Kenji is a gangster who wants to move up and is sleeping with his boss' wife. Together with a member of a rival gang they conspire to kill Kenji's boss and alter his testament to make Kenji the next boss. The only problem is that Kenji is gay. When Chuji saves Kenji's life when he's being chased by other yakuza, Kenji takes an interest in Chuji, which makes Kaneko, Kenji's right hand man, jealous. This, toghether with the boss' wife seeing Kenji frantically brush his teeth and vomiting in the shower after every time they have had sex, spells trouble for both Kenji's and Chuji's plans to move up in society.

If this had been one of the first films by Miike that I had watched instead of number 50 something (and if I hadn't been so tired) I probably would have gotten into it more. But as it was, it just was too predictable. This doesn't really lessen the actual film as much as it does my experience of it. The actors all do a fine job in making their characters seem real and while Miike focuses on them, the plot moves along at a slow pace towards the inevitable end that comes to all (most) of Miike's characters.

The predictability of a story doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing if the characters are interesting enough, but here I didn't really feel like I could connect despite the good performances. All I felt was "Please, get it over with, I know what's going to happen". I really should give Blues Harp another chance.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (1960).

It's hard to say anything about The Bad Sleep Well without giving away too much of the story, so beware of spoilers in this post.

Toshiro Mifune stars as Nishi, a man bent on exacting vengeance on the corporate executives that convinced his father to commit suicide out of loyalty to them. Together they were all involved in a scam to hire a company and pay them more than what was really needed, and then recieve personal kickbacks from the company. When Nishi's father grew a conscience, they talked him into killing himself and when Nishi found out, he took on a fake identity and gained employment as the vice president's secretary.

While it is clear from the beginning who "The Bad" of the title are, it is a bit more complicated. All of the men behind the corruption, one of them described as non-human by another character, wrestles with their guilt and one is even driven insane by it when he's subjected to Nishi's plan. Nishi himself, who expresses frustration over not being able to be as ruthless as his enemies, hesitates when he finds himself in love with Yoshiko, the daughter of the vice president, who he just married to advance faster in the company. But his and his enemies humanity is what drives them all towards defeat. Only the vice president himself, who manages to hide his own humanity until the very end, and the nameless voice on the phone who gives him orders, are the ones to come out as winners.

Darker than the other Kurosawa films I've seen, The Bad Sleep Well shows a world where only the completely heartless win and the rest are losers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Seven Days (Won Sin-Yeon, 2007)

Kim Jun-Yin as the lawyer trying to save her daughter in Won Sin-Yeon's Seven Days (2007).

Lately, I've been lucky with the Korean films I watch. Usually I expect to be disappointed, and most of the time I am, especially when it comes to thrillers. Seven Days did not disappoint though.

The story is about a successful lawyer, Yu Ji-Yeon, who is also a single mother. One day while participating in a race at her daughter's school, her daughter disappears. Soon enough, Ji-Yeon is contacted by someone who is demanding money for her daughter's return. Later, it turns out that the real ransom is arranging the release of a killer facing the death penalty. Ji-Yeon takes the case and along with her corrupted detective friend she starts to uncover the truth about the murder that put the man she is trying to free on death row. But they only have seven days until the trial.

The plot has a lot of twists and turns, but basically it's kept simple, which is what makes the film so successful. Leaving out romance and overly sentimental drama that is so common in Korean films makes the focus stay on the chase against time. It does come close to slowing down too much a few times during the second half, and the jury is still out on the ending, which works in some ways but just seems a bit too contrieved. Overall though, it is a thrilling ride.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Executive Koala (Minoru Kawasaki, 2005)

Minoru Kawasaki's Executive Koala (2005).

Keiichi Tamura works for a pickle distribution company. His career is moving along well and he's just about to make a deal with a Korean kimchi company when two detectives come looking for him at work. Tamura's girlfriend Yoko has been found dead and since his wife disappeared three years ago, he's the prime suspect. When the Korean businessman is visiting Japan he reveals himself to be the former lover of Tamura's wife, and that she used to write him about how Tamura was mistreating her. The problem is that Tamura can't remember a thing about what happened three years ago, and he's also a man-sized koala.

Director Minoru Kawasaki starts off by playing it straight, Tamura is popular with the women at work and even though some of them thinks he's a bit too furry, no one really seems to care that he's a koala. But what can you expect in a company where the president is a bunny. Then it turns into a bloody slasher/psycho thriller when Tamura, with the help of his psychiatrist, is trying to find out what really happened. After that, it just gets crazier and funnier.

Go, go Executive Koala!

I was a bit worried that I wouldn't like Executive Koala. When I watched Kawasaki's previous film, The Calamari Wrestler (2004), about a giant squid wrestler, I thought that while it was a great idea, the movie was just too slow and didn't have enough humor. The insanity of a squid fighting for a wrestling championship and his girlfriend just wasn't enough. There are no such problems in Executive Koala. Between the weirdness of a koala being an office worker, his bunny boss, the convenience store frog, a musical interlude and an interspecific martial arts fight, Executive Koala leaves no room for boredom, just bewildered amazment.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dachimawa Lee (Ryoo Seung-Wan, 2008)

Lim Won-Hie as Dachimawa Lee (2008).

Originally a short made by Ryoo Seung-Wan in 1998 and released on the internet, this new full length version, also by Ryoo, is a spoof of spy films like the James Bond franchise and Korean action films from the 60's and 70's (I wouldn't know, I haven't seen any). Dachimawa Lee is an enormously handsome spy, master of martial arts and all around great guy. If you believe the other characters in the film. Slightly overweight and less handsome than average, Dachimawa Lee does get all the ladies and instills fear in the bad guys.

The story is set in the 1940's and involves a golden Buddha statue that contains the names of all Korean spies in the world. Some Manchurian bandits are trying to get hold of it to sell it to the Japanese and, of course, it's up to Dachimawa Lee to stop them.

I'm not going to try to act like I picked up on every joke in the film. Since I don't speak either Korean, Japanese or Chinese, most of the "language jokes" and references were lost on me. What is in there though, when it comes to the over acting, all the physical humor and crazy antics (and there is a lot!) is no less than hilarious, and it's non stop until the end. Some have critisized it for being too much, but I'm grateful that it never takes the same route as most Korean comedies, which switches gears for a, usually unbearably boring, slower third act. Dachimawa Lee entertains all the way.

The Man in White (Takashi Miike, 2003)

Kazuki Kitamura, Tatsuya Fuji, Masaya Kato, Renji Ishibashi and Ryosuke Miki in Takashi Miike's The Man in White (2003).

When Azusa (Masaya Kato) is a kid he sees his father being murdered by his older stepbrother, Serita (Tatsuya Fuji). Now, as a yakuza, Azusa has another run in with his brother when Serita shows up and kills Azusa's boss, his new father, leaving Azusa as the only one alive. Azusa throws all sense of loyalty to the wind and goes off to avenge his boss and hunt down Serita and anyone involved in the conspiracy to kill his boss.

While the story is simple, it's Miike's execution that sets it apart from other films in the same genre. His characters are yakuza and live by the code, but only as long as it really suits them. The Man in White is filled with over the top characters but they have human feelings which make them seem more real than the more traditional yakuza characters you see in a lot of films. They are criminals, and there are no excuses, Azusa is the film's main character, but he is a killer, and his actions sets off a lot of unnecessary killings just so that he can get his will done. He is no hero even if his cause might seem noble. The same goes for his friend, Mizutani (Kazuki Kitamura), who's along for the ride. Serita and his buddy, the drug addicted alcoholic Sakazaki (Renji Ishibashi) are purely in it for their own gain, loyalty and honor are nothing more than words for them.

The darkness in Miike's characters put them closer, in my opinion, to those of Rokuro Mochizuki's films, where yakuzas often are crazy drug addicts who have trouble staying within the bounds of the yakuza code, simply because they are human. There probably are other filmmakers who also make their yakuza films like this (I'd like to say Fukasaku in Graveyard of Honor (1975), but it's been so long since I watched it), but I haven't seen anyone yet who does it as convincing as Miike. In The Man in White he constructs a world where everything the characters do is believable. Or maybe it's just easier to relate and believe in someone going crazy because of emotions and human weakness than going on a killing spree out of principle. This is one of Miike's finest yakuza efforts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Misa Uehara, Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara in The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Just finished watching another Kurosawa film, this time it was The Hidden Fortress, made in 1958. The film follows Matakishi and Tahei, two peasants who was late for a war and forced to dig graves by the winning side. After escaping from labor they find a stick of wood with gold hidden inside it, soon after they run into a stranger who is a general on the losing side of the war. It turns out that he knows where the rest of the gold is hidden and he is also, unbeknownst to the peasants, transporting a princess to safety. To cover up her status, she is appearing as a mute peasant. They decide to team up when the general uses Matakishi's and Tahei's greed to get them to help carry the gold. The rest of the film shows their journey through enemy territory.

Visually, The Hidden Fortress is the most impressive film of Kurosawa's that I've seen so far. This was his first film using the 2,35:1 format and he makes the most of it. As for the characters, they seem more one dimensional than what I'm used to from Kurosawa. The only one who really changes, even if just a little, is the princess who has to live like a peasant and learns a thing or too about humbleness and sacrifice. It's not a drawback, though, since all the characters are good fits for an action/adventure comedy, especially Matakishi and Tahei who are as dumb and cowardly as they are greedy. The Hidden Fortress is not my favorite Kurosawa film so far, but as an entertaining adventure, not many films beat it, old or new.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Madame O (Seiichi Fukuda, 1967)

Michiko Aoyama preying on her next victim in Madame O (1967).

Madame O is an independently produced, pre-pink, eroduction film, made in 1967 and directed by Seiichi Fukuda. Most of these early, pre-pink, sex films seem to be lost and unavailable even in Japan. The reason for Synapse Films being able to release Madame O is that it was sold to Audubon Films in the US and preserved by them, and that is why it's only available with an english dub.

Seiko (Michiko Aoyama) is the Madame O of the title, she works as a doctor and runs her own practice. When she was younger she was raped by three man who left her pregnant and infected with syphilis. The event has left her emotionally empty, except for wanting to take revenge on all men. She does that by walking the streets at night to pick up men and transfer the disease to them. One day she hires a male doctor and ends up falling in love for the first time in her life after he finds her passed out after performing an abortion on herself. When he also becomes a witness of Seiko killing and dismembering one of her late night pick-ups who tried to extort her, and doesn't report it, they soon get married. To no one's surprise though, it turns out that the good doctor may have a hidden agenda of his own.

For being described as a film that will "paralyze audiences with gore, nudity and shocking violence" as it is on the cover for the dvd, the film is very tame. Expecting any of the three will make the viewer come up short. Also, even at 81 minutes in length the film feels overlong and gets frustratingly boring, making the ending come as a relief rather than an intense finale. The most interesting things in the film are the cinematography, it does look good, and the actors who, even while being dubbed, come off as doing solid work. I'm still not sure on whether the decision to make some sequences in the film in color, while the main bulk of it is in black and white, was good or not. It seems like the scenes shot in color are mainly the ones with nudity or blood in them, or both, and it just makes it feel more exploitive instead of artistic.

While I appreciate that Synapse has given this film a dvd release and making it available, I also wish distributors would put the same effort into releasing better films from the early eroduction and pink film era. It feels like Madame O got the attention more because of it being available than anything else.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Eye for an Eye (Kwak Kyung-Taek, Ahn Kwon Tae, 2008)

Han Suk-Kyu and Cha Seung-Won as cop and robber in Eye for an Eye (2008).

I watched another Korean film today, Eye for an Eye, directed by Kwak Kyung-Taek and Ahn Kwon-Tae. Why they replaced Ahn with Kwak after finishing half the film I don't know, maybe it was just co-directed, but parts of the film are confusing and hard to follow. Maybe Ahn was having trouble getting it straight. It's basically a heist film with Cha playing the mastermind behind it and Han playing the cop trying to catch him and at the same time it has a story about Han's detective trying to catch a powerful business man who is also a crime boss, in style with Public Enemy (2002). Knowing more about the plot beforehand would spoil the film, so I'll leave it at that.

I wouldn't call the film a masterpiece, but it is a great piece of entertainment, mostly thanks to Han Suk-Kyu and Cha Seung-Won in the lead roles. Han seems to be moving away from the regular lead roles, like in Christmas in August (Hur Jin-Ho, 1998), Shiri (Kang Je-Gyu, 1999) and Tell Me Something (Chang Yoon-Hyun, 1999), that I'm used to seeing him in and portrays a slightly more bizarre character here.

With Eye for an Eye my interest in Korean cinema keeps on growing after having been put to rest a couple of years ago. It may not be the greatest film ever made in Korea but it's up there with the better of their crime films.


Apparently, Eye for an Eye was a co-writing and co-directorial effort between Kwak Kyung-Taek and Ahn Kwon-Tae. Ahn, the director of My Brother (2004), was not replaced by the more experienced Kwak whose earlier films include Friend (2001), Champion (2002), Mutt Boy (2003) and Typhoon (2005).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Unlucky Monkey (Sabu, 1998)

Shinichi Tsutsumi in Sabu's Unlucky Monkey (1998).

While watching Unlucky Monkey, directed by Hiroyuki Tanaka aka Sabu, I thought "Is it just me or has every Japanese film I've watched lately dealt with individuality and individual responsibility?" Unlucky Monkey travels the same path, kind of, but the main theme here is guilt.

When Yamazaki (Shinichi Tsutsumi) and his buddy (Sabu) is ready to enter a bank to rob it, another robber comes running out and is hit by a car. His bag of loot comes flying through the air and lands in the arms of Yamazaki who takes off running with the bag and a knife in his hand. Turning a corner he accidentaly bumps into a young woman and stabs her. He flees the scene and buries the money in a field before taking off again.

Simultaneously, two yakuza are in a meeting with a boss from another gang, applying to join since their own boss is in prison. When their third friend barges in the boss from the rival gang is accidentaly killed. Afraid of the consequences, the three yakuza hides the body, but soon they are being pursued by killers from the other gang.

Both of these storylines are basically the same, except that while Yamazaki struggles with his conscience, being overwhelmed by guilt when he finds out that the woman he stabbed didn't make it, the yakuza are only concerned with saving their own skins. At first Yamazaki tries to but the blame on the victim, maybe she ran into him on purpose, maybe she was suicidal, but in the end he has to fess up and take responsibility and he is willing to give up both the money and his life. When all the characters crosses paths in the end, I think the ability to feel guilt and take responsibility is what seals their fates.

Unlucky Monkey is a great film, it doesn't matter if you watch it to try to find a message in it or just go along for the ride. There are other films like this, where a bunch of characters' fates are just loosely intertwined but where they all play important parts for each other through chance encounters, but not many makes them as great as Sabu.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Chanbara Beauty (Yohei Fukuda, 2008)

Yohei Fukuda's Chanbara Beauty aka OneChanbara (2008).

What did I expect? I guess that ever since watching Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus (2000), I've been waiting for the next low-budget, stylish, gory action film that will actually be good. Kitamura himself hasn't managed to top it yet and it doesn't seem like anyone else will either, at least not anytime soon. The closest I've seen to the spirit of Versus is Yudai Yamaguchi's Battlefield Baseball (2003), even though it's a comedy and not really an action film, and the Media Blasters production Death Trance (2005), directed by Yuji Shimomura, the action director on Versus. Chanbara Beauty, however, doesn't even come close.

Based on a video game, the story is kind of thin. A scientist (Taro Suwa) is experimenting on corpses to resurrect them but, of course, they turn into zombies. To succeed he needs the blood from a pair of sisters who's from a special bloodline, one of which he has already captured. The older sister is wandering a futuristic Japan ridden with living dead, killing every zombie that she meets while looking for her abducted sister. It's not much, but it should be enough for an entertaining zombie slashing film.

Unfortunately, the fight scenes are so fast that a lot of times it is hard to see what is going on, there's just a bunch of CG blood flying around the screen. For some reason (unless there's a problem with the dvd that I watched) they have decided to not use sound effects for parts of the action and it makes it feel disconnected and even harder to enjoy. Or maybe I'm just not getting it.

To me, the action scenes is the biggest flaw in the film. If it doesn't deliver the action, what point is there to it? Other than that, I don't have much to say. Complaining about the story or the acting in a film like this seems kind of redundant, it's point is the action and that is where it fails. Not even Taro Suwa, talking about the meaning of life and being God, while pulling gory bits out of a severed head can save this one.